Addiction

Religious People Report More “Porn Addiction”

Reconsidering the nature of compulsive sexual behaviors

Posted Aug 17, 2020

Pornography is widely available throughout most of the developed world, and there is also widespread concern about its potential mental and sexual health risks. Of particular concern is the possibility of developing a porn addiction, that is, a compulsive drive to view pornography that the person cannot control. However, objectively diagnosing such an addiction is difficult, in that it mainly depends on the individual’s attitudes toward their own porn use.

Recently, the World Health Organization included a new diagnosis—compulsive sexual behavior disorder, or CSBD for short—in the forthcoming eleventh edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Listed in this category are activities such as soliciting prostitutes and hooking up. But as Bowling Green State University psychologist Joshua Grubbs and colleagues point out in a recent article, the most common instance of compulsive sexual behavior that patients report to their therapists is problematic pornography use. (After all, few of us have the “game” for hooking up, and sex workers are expensive, but internet porn is free and bountiful.)

According to the ICD-11, a sexual behavior is deemed compulsive if it occurs repeatedly over a period of at least six months and results in significant distress or impairment on the part of the patient. Furthermore, the manual specifically rules out a diagnosis of compulsive sexual behavior disorder if the distress stemming from it is due solely to moral or religious attitudes about sexuality more generally. Likewise, clinicians are warned against using their own religious beliefs as a yardstick for judging their clients’ behaviors.

However, as Grubbs and colleagues point out, if a diagnosis of compulsive sexual behavior disorder cannot be based the religious attitudes about sex that are held by either the patient or the therapist, then it’s not clear when such a diagnosis can be made. In other words, the question becomes: Do people even feel distress about their pornography use for other than for religious reasons? This is the question Grubbs and colleagues explored in their article.

For this study, the researchers recruited over 1400 men and women over the age of 18 who acknowledged having viewed pornography at least once in the last year. About two-thirds of the respondents were male, and the other third were female. Their average age was 44, and their demographics, such as race and marital status, roughly matched the national distribution.

The participants responded to three sets of surveys:

  • Religiousness. Respondents were asked to rate how important religion was in their lives, how often they prayed, and how often they attended church services.
  • Pornography use. Respondents indicated their frequency of pornography viewing, ranging from once or twice in the last year to “once or more a day."  (In case you’re wondering, the average reported frequency was around twice a month.)
  • Self-reported addiction to pornography. Respondents answered questions intended to assess their perceived level of addiction to pornography and how out of control they felt in their use of it. For example, they indicated their level of agreement with statements such as “I feel unable to stop my use of online pornography” and “I have attempted to cut back or stop using pornography but was unsuccessful.”

The researchers then looked at the correlations among these three variables. Perhaps not surprisingly, pornography use and self-reported addiction to pornography were positively correlated, meaning that as one increased, so did the other. In other words, infrequent porn users are less worried about their behaviors becoming addictive than are frequent users.

Perhaps more surprising was the positive correlation between religiousness and self-reported addiction to pornography. That is to say, the more religious the respondent was, the more likely they were to believe they had a porn addiction.

However, this doesn’t mean that religious persons watch a lot of porn. In fact, the data show the opposite, in that religiousness was negatively correlated with pornography use. In other words, religious people on average tend to view less porn than non-religious persons do.

A closer analysis of the data shows that participants who self-reported that they were addicted to pornography tend to view a lot of porn and also are highly religious. In contrast, non-religious respondents usually didn’t see their porn use as problematic, even when the frequency was high.

The finding presents a challenge to the criteria for diagnosing compulsive sexual behavior disorder. After all, the description of the disorder specifically precludes distress due to religious attitudes about sexuality. And yet the results of this study show that it’s largely those with restrictive religious attitudes about sex in general, and masturbation in particular, that self-report an addiction to pornography.

Based on these findings, the researchers challenge the validity of “pornography addiction” as a useful clinical category. Plenty of people who view pornography, even on a frequent basis, feel no distress over this behavior, nor does it seem to negatively impact their lives. Indeed, for many people, a reasonable amount of porn viewing is part of their healthy sex lives.

These observations bring us back to the World Health Organization’s definition of compulsive sexual behavior disorder. The criteria for the disorder specifically indicate that the distress cannot come from religious attitudes. And yet, very few people who self-report a porn addiction experience distress that does not come from their restrictive religious upbringing.

Instead of focusing on the idea of “porn addiction,” it would be better for therapists to help their clients resolve the conflict between their religious beliefs and their natural sex drive. Therapists also need to hang their religion at the door, so to speak, when working with patients concerned about their porn use or other sexual issues. Of course, clinicians are taught to be non-judgmental in the therapy session, but when it comes to religious beliefs, which are internalized so early in life and sustained with such strong emotions, remaining open and accepting can be a very difficult thing to do.

References

Grubbs, J. B., Lee, B. N., Hoagland, K. C., Kraus, S. W., & Perry, S. L. (2020). Addiction or transgression? Moral incongruence and self-reported problematic pornography use in a nationally representative sample. Clinical Psychological Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/2167702620922966